On PEI, autumn is for Asters. These beautiful and often colourful flowers can be found in literally every Island habitat right now: sand dunes, salt marshes, wetlands, bogs, streamsides, forests, and fields. I’ve been getting lots of questions about the ones brightening up our roadsides, so let’s take a look at three of the common species found there.
We have well over 100 members of the Aster Family (Asteracea) on PEI, and about 15 of these are commonly called ‘Asters’. (This family also includes plants like Daisies, Goldenrods, Hawkweeds, and Thistles, among many others). Although I’m showing you just the flowers here – that’s what most people notice – Aster identification often requires attention to leaves and stems as well.
New York Aster (Symphiotrichum novi-belgii, Photo 1) is among our most common, and the one you frequently see along Island roads in late summer and fall. Despite its name, this wildflower is native to PEI. Its ray flowers (petals) are relatively long and wide as far as Asters go and are usually pale pink (although you can sometimes find both darker and lighter varieties in garden centres). In the centre of the rays are yellow disk flowers.
New England Aster (Symphiotrichum novi-angliae, Photo 2) is the one that always catches my eye when I see it along the highway. It’s not native to PEI and is less common than New York Aster, but its much darker flowers stand out dramatically when growing among a patch of its native cousins. Its rays are narrower than those of New York Aster, and there are many more of them packed into each flower. The central disk flowers start out yellow but darken to gold as the plant ages.
Calico Aster (Symphiotrichum lateriflorum, Photo 3) is distinctive in that it is more highly branched than the other two, with flowers all over the plant, not just at the top. The rays are shorter and paler than New York Aster, and less tightly packed on the flower; I find this Aster has a bit of a gap-toothed appearance. This is another of our common native roadside species, but Calico Aster is more shade tolerant than the other two mentioned here: you can also find it in woodlands and along forest roads and trails.
While we appreciate Asters for their beauty, our late-season pollinators rely on them for food. Asters not only fuel migratory butterflies such as Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, and Monarchs, but also many of our overwintering bees, beetles, flies, and wasps (so much so that I had a hard time taking these photos without insects photobombing them!). Additionally, songbirds are feasting on Aster seeds this time of year, and small mammals such as Meadow Voles, Deer Mice, and Jumping Mice will eat Aster seeds that fall to the ground.
Autumn is a great time of year to be outdoors, enjoying Asters and all parts of PEI untamed!